Bela Bartok: Finding a Voice Through Folk Music Every young composer searches for a unique voice. Conductor Marin Alsop says Bela Bartok found his in the hills and villages of rural Hungary. The songs he collected from peasants infused the spirit of his music.
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Romanian Folk Dances (7) (Román népi táncok), for orchestra, Sz. 68, BB 76

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Bela Bartok: Finding a Voice Through Folk Music

Romanian Folk Dances (7) (Román népi táncok), for orchestra, Sz. 68, BB 76

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14416746/14443489" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Bela Bartok is one of the 20th century's great composers - a modernist from Transylvania whose compositions are marked by driving rhythms, dissonant chords and unexpected episodes of lyricism. Here's an excerpt from his ballet, "The Miraculous Mandarin," was first performed in 1926 then promptly banned as scandalous - never again performed in his lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN")

SIMON: Bartok, along with his friend and fellow Hungarian, Zoltan Kodaly, collected and recorded folk music from Eastern Europe, Turkey and North Africa. Bela Bartok then incorporated some of the melodies and rhythms to create an utterly distinct style of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN")

SIMON: We're joined by our friend Marin Alsop who's now taking over the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here. Thanks.

SIMON: Bela Bartok was a real prodigy - playing music and composing from the age of six. And prodigious, he wrote music for the piano, orchestral music, sixth string quartets and opera, a ballet. What are your favorite works of his?

ALSOP: And coming from, as you said, Transylvania, he became enamored with the really early folk music - peasant songs, instrumental music, I mean, but the authentic stuff that was played only in the little corners of the country, and that informs his vocabulary in the way that I think very few composers have been able to imitate.

SIMON: In listening to some of the music, let's begin with "The Miraculous Mandarin," which he began writing in 1918 but didn't premiere in Cologne until 1926, and then was banned. Now, was it because of the music or the storyline?

ALSOP: Well, it was really the storyline. It's about these three, really, hooligans and this one shady woman that's with them, and they lure people up to their room and then they rob them and beat them up and murder them if they need to. So that's basically the story, and there are three victims, almost, that they lure up to the room and the woman gradually seduces, and the third one being this mandarin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN")

ALSOP: So this is where they opened the door and the mandarin is standing at the door with his eyes on fire and very imposing, a terrifying figure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN")

ALSOP: What's so fascinating is that Bartok in so many of his stage works, he uses this dark side of humanity. This entire tale, I think, brings up things that people, particularly of that time, did not want to confront whatsoever.

SIMON: Despite the fact that it was banned for a good long time, has it become a part of classical music's basic repertoire?

ALSOP: Well, what happened was Bartok was so despondent about the ban on this ballet that he took the music and created a sweet, which is extraordinarily effective, and it's often done as a concert piece, and it last about 20 minutes. It's wonderfully dramatic, and that's how Bartok breathed some life back into the score.

SIMON: He did write some music that wasn't particularly controversial too. I'm thinking of the "Romanian Dances."

ALSOP: Yes, of course. You know, Bartok actually did have a sense of humor, too, and a light side. And we recorded recently the "Romanian Dances," which he eventually orchestrated.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC, "ROMANIAN DANCES")

ALSOP: They're wonderfully fun, but also there is this element of melancholy, I think, that you hear throughout his music. And that was a theme that ran through everything he composed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC, "ROMANIAN DANCES")

SIMON: I know you've also performed and recorded the only opera Bartok wrote, "Bluebeard's Castle." Now he wrote this 1911. How was this piece received?

ALSOP: Well, this was a really interesting piece for Bartok. There was a competition that was announced by his publisher for one-act operas, and then the government announced the competition for one-act operas. So he thought, look, I'm bound to win it at least one these competitions. The really sad news is that, even though he was one of only two entries in one of the competitions, he didn't win either...

SIMON: Oh my word.

ALSOP: ...because the music and, again, the storyline is...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...so forward thinking, so dark and unique. The tale of Bluebeard was originally in the Mother Goose fairy tales, and it did, indeed, tell the story of Bluebeard who killed all of his wives. And what happens in this version of "Bluebeard's Castle," you hear at the very opening the low, low, low sounds of the orchestra, and it's very nebulous, very mysterious, very ominous. And I think this represents not only Duke Bluebeard's castle but his soul as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE")

SIMON: I must say, sitting there in the audience, you would know, somehow, I'm not going to come out whistling this tune.

ALSOP: Well, it does feel pretty ominous, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE")

ALSOP: Unidentified Man (Stage Actor): (As Bluebeard) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE")

ALSOP: Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As Judith) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE")

ALSOP: And then she says, well, what are all these locked doors? And he says, oh, don't worry about those locked doors. We'll just leave them (unintelligible). So the whole opera really is this journey of her coercing him, convincing him to unlock the doors and what's behind each of them.

SIMON: What's audience reaction like when you performed this?

ALSOP: You know, I just performed it in England, and it was phenomenal. It is so dramatic and so gripping, and the music, it almost grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go for an entire hour. I mean, it was really one of the most thrilling experiences I've had.

SIMON: We unearthed the fact that Benny Goodman commissioned Bela Bartok to write a piece for the clarinet.

ALSOP: He actually commissioned Bartok to write a piece called "Contrasts," which is for solo clarinet, solo violin and piano, and this is interesting because this was the very first Bartok piece that I ever played as a violinist, I was 16 years old. And when I first listened to it, I thought I'm never going to be able to play this, and I can't stand contemporary music. It was so foreign-sounding to me. And then I fell in love with this piece. You know, once you let go of the world that you know and really submerge yourself in the vocabulary of Bartok's music, it's hypnotizing and magnetic.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CONTRASTS")

SIMON: He was a dedicated anti-fascist, opposed the fascist government that took root in Hungary, and I gather he even refused to perform in Germany after Hitler took power there, emigrated to the United States in 1940 but was openly unhappy about it.

ALSOP: You know, he was a man who felt isolated and on the fringe his entire life. The thing we didn't talk about was that growing up, he suffered from any number of childhood illnesses and so he was always isolated from other kids. And I think the sense of not belonging only intensified throughout his life and eventually all the countries that he knew from his childhood no longer existed, And then he finds himself in this new world and completely misunderstood. And he died, I think, in a very, very, very tragic state.

SIMON: At 64, I believe, when he died.

ALSOP: He was 64. He died of leukemia.

SIMON: How did he manage, in that very little state, to write concerto for orchestra?

ALSOP: Well, Koussevitzky - who was, of course, the conductor of the Boston Symphony - went to visit him in the hospital and said, I would like you to write a piece for my orchestra. And, amazingly, Bartok sort of revived with the idea of this commission, and the idea, I think, that someone wanted of his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Before we let you go, you are now the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and you're about to have your debut concert.

ALSOP: Yes.

SIMON: September 27th at the music center at Strathmore and 28th, 29th and 30th in Baltimore's great symphony hall.

ALSOP: Yes, it's an exciting time. I'm really looking forward to it. The program, I chose to open with his song. John Adams will be here and I'm going to do fearful symmetries and then Mahler "Fifth Symphony."

SIMON: Well, good luck.

ALSOP: Thanks. It's been great to be here.

SIMON: Have you back soon. Marin Alsop, the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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